A Conservative Media Reckoning

When allegations arose from a New York Times investigation that Bill O’Reilly had sexually harassed women for years while working for Fox News, the reaction was swift and decisive. In a matter of days, more than twenty national advertisers had pulled their programming from The O’Reilly Factor, throwing O’Reilly’s future at the network into doubt and sending shockwaves through a company that, only months before, had ousted its former chief executive on similar charges. Since then, O’Reilly’s been fired.

The firing comes as the capstone to a tumultuous period at Fox News and conservative media in general, coming on the heels of the implosions of other commentators like Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopolous and TheBlaze’s Tomi Lahren. The sudden backlash against the actions of former conservative media giants is a stunning reversal considering their meteoric rise.

Only a short time ago, Yiannopolous was the face of the growing alt-right movement, a senior editor for Breitbart News and wild-card speaker that traveled from university to university rattling off his ideas on free speech, outing illegal immigrants, and how college rape culture is a “myth.” Then, the hammer finally struck. Yiannopolous was caught on tape seemingly endorsing pedophilia, spurring outrage. In the events that followed, his book deal was cancelled, he lost his job at Breitbart, and he saw his influence quickly dwindle.  

Following Yiannopolous’ self-inflicted fall from grace, Tomi Lahren experienced a similar downfall because of behavioral flaws in her conduct. Glenn Beck, the leader of TheBlaze, was annoyed that she flip-flopped on issues, antagonized his staff, and lacked basic “intellectual honesty.”  Lahren was convinced that Beck had suspended her for making pro-abortion comments, but even her former colleagues slammed her after her suspension for humiliating her staffers and yelling at them on a regular basis. It was another surprising ejection for a woman who was so popular that she was once profiled by the BBC for having more Facebook followers than Trump.

For Fox News, Roger Ailes’ and Bill O’Reilly’s rapid downfalls were bruising both financially and publicly. O’Reilly’s show alone brought in hundreds of millions of dollars for the company each year, and in a blink, that source of revenue disappeared. The company has also been forced to reckon with a new era of leadership post-Roger Ailes, who helped lead the network for more than two decades.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Megyn Kelly, who’d been viewed as a rising star for the network, departed Fox several months ago, slicing another hefty sum of revenue from the company’s sheets. The Murdoch family, which had partly seen her as the network’s future, had been prepared to pay her more than $20 million a year to keep her on board. Ironically, she cited Bill O’Reilly’s behavior while she worked there as a major reason for her departure.

At first glance, it might appear that all of this is unrelated. O’Reilly’s firing, Megyn Kelly’s exit, Ailes’ downfall, and a volatile year for conservative media in general could all be chalked up to a series of ill-timed coincidences. A closer glance, however, reveals a steady trend.  In each individual case, growing anger or disgust forced a bad actor out. For O’Reilly, it was because of advertisers; for Ailes and Yiannopolous, it was from public pressure; and for Lahren, it was her own colleagues. Repeatedly, different forces are demanding accountability for the actions and words of those in positions of influence. Whether it’s sexual harassment from O’Reilly and Ailes, pedophilia comments from Milo Yiannopolous, or Lahren’s comments likening Black Lives Matter to the KKK, companies are bowing to the public and private rage stemming from their own employees or the ordinary people watching or listening at home. Fox News, TheBlaze, and Breitbart have all caved to the mounting pressure against their stars.

Conservative media outlets seem to be reaching a turning point, where they’ll either deal with their rampant vices or risk destruction. O’Reilly and Ailes’ history of sexual harassment,  Yiannopolous’ comments that college rape culture is a myth, and Lahren’s heated defense of the now-famous Trump tape (where he openly admits to sexually assaulting women) all point to a culture that, at its best, trivializes sexual misconduct. At its worst, it implicitly endorses it. To prove it, Fox News allowed both O’Reilly to stay on for years despite direct knowledge of the allegations against him, and to top it off, he got a $25 million payout when he left. Similarly, Ailes received $40 million after resigning and was promised a position as an informal adviser to Rupert Murdoch going forward. This doesn’t paint a picture of a company that’s learned or cares that much about what happened. Instead, it feels like nobody was ever really punished in the first place.   

Megyn Kelly was right to leave Fox News; if anything, it’s shown itself to be a haven for a damaging and repulsive culture that disrespects women and prioritizes money for the network over discipline for its employees. The Murdoch family’s hesitant firing of O’Reilly after an entire week of deliberating wasn’t particularly appealing, either.

Conservative media outlets are struggling to deal with the problems they’ve helped create. Extremists like Lahren — who’s gone as far to call Syrian refugees cowards for running from the brutal devastation of the civil war roiling the country — should have no distinguished place in public discourse. The end of the Ailes and O’Reilly era at Fox is a starting point, and that progress is a good thing. But there’s a long way to go.

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